Heidi Hanna, PhD: Q&A on Reducing Overwhelm to Whelm With a Smile
The integrative neuroscientist and student of humor explains the therapeutic effects of humor as relief from chronic stress and as essential for caregivers’ health.
By Margot Slade
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You’ve had that long day when the boss is in a mood, or the kids are fussy, or maybe the family member you’re caring for is more challenging than usual. You come home, plop onto the sofa, and watch a rerun ofFriendsfor the umpteenth time. And there you are, chuckling over the same funny line while feeling your mood brighten. Why is that?
“Because, as Milton Berle said, ‘Laughter is like an instant vacation,’” says Heidi Hanna, PhD, the founder and CEO of Synergy, a consulting company providing brain-based health and performance programs for organizations, as well as executive director of the American Institute of Stress, and a member of the board of the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor. A nonprofit international community of laughter professionals and enthusiasts, medical professionals, and social scientists, the association provides education and resources in support of humor to promote health and well-being.
“Humor,” Dr. Hanna explains, “is like massage for the brain. It initiates the relaxation response, shifting brain chemistry towards positivity, creativity, and collaboration.”
Everyday Health spoke with Hanna about how humor can reduce "overwhelm" to mere "whelm," and help prevent us from stressing out. (We certainly felt better afterwards.)
Everyday Health: What happens in our brains that allows humor to relieve stress?
Heidi Hanna:Research has shown that finding something funny causes a cascade of biological changes in the brain and body. When we laugh, it’s a physical expression of humor that triggers abdominal contractions, which stimulates circulation and the release of “feel good” chemicals as the body lets go of muscle tension.
But even without laughing, just the mental and emotional experience of finding something humorous can nudge our neurons towards the positive. Research published in April 2019 inThe FASEB Journal, by Lee Berk, PhD, at Loma Linda University in Southern California, suggested that mirth — the emotional experience of being amused — stimulates the production of gamma waves in the brain that shift the body into a more relaxed state, like deep meditation. In another study published in April 2019 inThe FASEB Journal, Gurinder Bains, MD, PhD — also at Loma Linda University — and colleagues showed that watching a video of something the individual rates as being humorous enhances memory and reduces inflammation, as measured by the amount of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the bloodstream.
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There is a significant amount of research showing that experiencing humor also boosts the production of immune cells, reduces pain and chronic fatigue, and may be able to improve mental and emotional health by shifting negativity bias — our natural, self-protective tendency to see the threats in our environment — towards the positive.
Because chronic or toxic stress is often triggered by thoughts that are overwhelming or uncomfortable, a focus on sadness about past events, or worry about what’s in the future, humor gives the brain an opportunity to rest and find relief in present-moment experiences. For many people, finding things funny allows them to play with their pain and reframe perceived threats as being less catastrophic.
You know, many if not most comedians have experienced suffering in their lives and have learned to find what’s ironic or even absurd that can be used as a punch line or a funny story. In this way, humor can also give us an outlet for the pain and frustration in our lives, making us feel more in control of our own mindsets and able to thought-shift our own experiences.
EH: How effective is humor in relieving stress? Will it work for only certain personality types?
HH:Humor can be very effective for reducing the pressure and tension caused by stress and enabling any one of us to feel more in control of our experience of life. Although we can’t always control what happens to us, we can make a choice about how we want to react and respond. Humor can help us to communicate more effectively with each other, leveling the playing field when the players on that field are of different status, such as a boss and a direct report or a parent and child.
We have to remember that it needs to be used appropriately. Humor is one of many tools to choose from in our anti-stress toolkit. And it needs to be healthy humor — not used self-deprecatingly or at someone else’s expense. These are examples that easily come to mind, but I think we all know what I mean.
Now, certain humor styles may align with different personality types; some people like slapstick and other very physical humor, while others define funny as humor that appeals to their intellect, such as satire and clever puns. But to benefit from humor, the only thing you must be is willing to practice noticing what’s funny about life. The more we look for what we find funny, the more we see funny. And the more we see funny, the more quickly we can shift our mindset when things are difficult.
The point isn’t to make our pain go away or avoid what’s necessary to confront, but rather to use humor as a coping mechanism and, again, another tool in our toolkit for shifting out of the grasp of chronic stress long enough to problem solve and collaborate with others more effectively.
EH: Does this all happen naturally, or do we need to train our brains to use humor this way?
HH:Yes, and yes! My dear friend Karyn Buxman has made it her life’s work to explore the power of applied humor. She’s published several books and is a popular speaker and consultant on the subject, and has a TEDx talk where her basic message — and I want to quote her — is that if we “purposely and intentionally practice using humor to cope with stress, we can move from humor by chance to humor by choice, and experience the benefits more fully and more regularly.”
This is an important point to me: We often naturally turn to humor to break up tension within ourselves or with a tough crowd at work or home. But having a sense of humor isn’t always natural. Again, the more we practice finding things funny, the more we see funny. The more we learn to let down our mental filter, which is constantly saying, “That’s not funny” or “It’s too soon to find that funny,” the more we can allow ourselves to relish the ridiculous. The more amazing and amusing life becomes, the more the challenges that are a natural part of life don’t seem quite as overwhelming.
EH: Is humor as a stress reliever something that can and should be prescribed?
HH:I would love to see humor prescribed as a tool for stress management. It’s cost effective (free; no copay necessary). It doesn’t require extra equipment. It has no unpleasant side effects. It’s totally portable and can be accessed 24/7. If healthcare professionals themselves would become better educated about the why and the how of therapeutic humor, I believe they would enthusiastically prescribe it.
I’m on the board of an organization called the Association for Applied and Therapeutic Humor where we try to do just this — educate professionals and the public about the power of humor to improve all aspects of life, health and happiness, relationships, communications, and more.
EH: Going back to the workings of humor and the body, you’ve noted in particular how humor interacts with the head, heart, and gut. Could you explore that more?
HH: When the mind finds something funny, it shifts towards a state of parasympathetic activation, the so-called relaxation response. This enables us to think more clearly and problem solve more effectively. From this calmer state, we are better able to collaborate with others to come up with better solutions to the things that stress us out. We can also communicate more effectively with others, as we reduce our negativity bias and defensiveness so that we can hear each other, empathize with one another, and provide a psychologically safe space to work together.
The parasympathetic or relaxation response initiated by the head-brain has a balancing and recharging effect on the physical and emotional heart. When we experience mirth, our breathing rate and heart rate shift to a pattern that is more coherent. The connection between the heart and the head becomes more aligned, and we can think, feel, and act from a place of more kindness and compassion, less frustration and aggravation.
Of course, when brain and heart patterns are more coherent and stress hormones are reduced, there is less wear and tear on the entire system. Digestion happens more effectively in this relaxed “rest and digest” parasympathetic state, keeping the playing field for the microbiome and overall gut health as nourishing as possible.
Research also shows that when we are chronically stressed, the resulting changes to the brain and body systems make us more prone to unhealthy choices related to things such as diet, exercise, and sleep. So when we harness the power of healthy humor, we naturally become better at taking care of ourselves in other ways that matter to our head, heart, and gut health.
EH: Are different types of humor — laughter, mirth, or wit, for example — all equally effective as stress relievers?
HH:Humor is a whole-brain activity that includes wit (cognitive), mirth (emotional), and laughter (physiological response). Not all of these need to be present for someone to enjoy the benefits of healthy humor.
Laughter yoga has become quite a popular way for people to get the benefits of laughter and the associated physical tension release regardless of whether there is a cognitive or emotional trigger. Wit allows us to reframe a situation by playing with our challenges and seeing things from a different perspective, decreasing anxiety and anger. This type of practice essentially builds up cognitive flexibility to see life from a new frame of mind. Like experiences of gratitude or appreciation, mirth is a positive emotion that we can tap into either by noticing something funny that’s happening in the moment or recalling pleasant humorous experiences (moments of mirth) that can sooth the nerves by reducing tension and hostility.
EH: You’ve spoken a lot about caregiver stress. You’ve worked with colleagues to create humor programs especially for people caring for others. Does this group have special needs that need fulfilling in a tailored way?
HH:Caregiver stress takes a big toll on those trying to care for loved ones or others. One study has shown that caregivers have a 23 percent higher level of stress hormones and a 15 percent lower level of antibody responses — these represent your immune defense system — than noncaregivers. This is in part because caregivers are often focused so much on the needs of others that they fail to put their own self-care at the top of the priority list, which has multiple effects. Of course, they experience more wear and tear on the brain and body, which can quickly lead to all sorts of health issues and early disabilities of their own. What caregivers may not realize is that the stress burden, the overload they carry, will also spill over to those they're trying to help.
Stress is contagious, as we’ve learned from studies of school teachers, spouses, and others: When one person has elevated stress hormones and other biological markers of stressing out, those they're teaching or who live in close proximity, those for whom they’re providing support, will also have increased stress hormones. We are hardwired to read each other’s nonconscious cues for potential threats and activate our own internal stress reactions to prepare and cope. In this way, we often activate each other throughout the day, and instead of helping each other effectively heal and recover, we end up caught in a vicious cycle of stress contagion.
When providing comedic relief and training to caregivers, we first want to make sure that people know we are never laughing at them or making light of the serious challenges we all face in life. That’s especially true for those who are providing or receiving extra care. We also want to ensure they understand that it's not about being funny, but about learning how to see funny that helps us to have a more resilient and flexible lens through which to see the world. In fact, most comedy throughout time has a component of playing with pain, whether it's making fun of the things we do or decisions we made. We find common ground in what's silly, ironic, or even ridiculous about life.
Second, we want to make sure that caregivers know that although they're busy, they can use little humor interventions with those they're caring for, and can lighten up the mood by watching a funny video, listening to a funny comedian on tape, or browsing some funny cartoons. What's most important is to use the type of humor that the person we're trying to help would find funny — something from their generation or in the humor style that they appreciate, whether that’s slapstick or satire, for example.
Finally, we want caregivers to realize that taking care of themselves is a critical part of taking care of their loved one. It's not selfish to take time out, hire or recruit from within the family or circle of friends some extra help for a time, so that they can recharge their own batteries.They need to know that the energy they bring to their loved one will be so much more healing when they're able to feel supported as well. We want caregivers to know there are many organizations out there who want to provide them with support, and that they are not alone.
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